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Interview: Music Icon Dion Shares His Life in New Musical The Wanderer

Written by Charles Messina and directed by Kenneth Ferrone, the show has its debut March 24 at Paper Mill Playhouse.

One name says it all: Dion.

And even if you don't know the name, you know the songs. "Runaround Sue." "The Wanderer." These songs defined the pre-British invasion rock era, and they've endured for 60-plus years.

Dion is the subject of the new biographical musical The Wanderer, running at Paper Mill Playhouse March 24-April 24, in anticipation of a Broadway future. Written by Charles Messina and featuring Dion's timeless songs, the show tells the story of a kid from the Bronx who began singing under a streetlight and had a meteoric rise to fame. It's a no-holds-barred affair, Dion says, one that will also touch on the major turning points in his life: not getting on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper; his 15-year heroin addiction and struggle to get clean; and finding the faith and love that helped turn his life around.

In anticipation of the run, Dion told TheaterMania about the "transcendent" experience of putting the show together.

Dion
(© image provided by the production)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How are rehearsals going?
It's miraculous. I hate to use the word magical, because it sounds manipulative. I would use the word "transcendent" or say that it brings you into a place of enchantment. I'm watching this stuff and I've learned so much. I've become a believer.

This is big for me. You know, I'm an easy guy to figure out. I listened to Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams when I was a kid, and they brought me to a place of pleasure and delight. All my life, I've been looking to transmit that to others and I can do it with a three-minute song, or a 70-minute, 90-minute album. This play is two hours and 15 minutes, but I feel like it's doing the same thing, in a different medium.

Charles Messina, who wrote it, took the straw of my life and spun it into gold. He's a rhythm writer. The pace, the spirit I have with music, he does it with words. The director, Kenneth Ferrone, is from Vero Beach, and I thought "How is this guy from Vero Beach gonna know what the Bronx is about?" But this guy must have taken a course in chemistry. He knows what makes people explode. He knows what makes them go inside and not want to talk. He just has a gift for the dynamics between relationships. I never saw my misspent youth in choreography terms. Sarah O'Gleby, who's doing the choreography, she has these dancers and they're almost like actors within the scene. If it's dramatic, you'll feel their pain while they're dancing.

What is it like to watch your story play out, particularly as portrayed by Mike Wartella, Christy Altomare, and Joey McIntyre?
It's lovely. I liked Mike the day I met him. I don't hold notes — I'm not a singer like that. I'm a rhythm singer. You could give me a rhythm and I could get it. So that's where Mike is. Mike is a rhythm singer. He knows how to get in the song and make people feel it. It's not technique; it's just enjoying the song and getting inside the song. There's something about him that resonated with me. I told him not to try and copy me, but he got the essence of the songs.

Joey McIntyre, I'll tell you the truth, you're going to be very surprised by this guy. You've got to come see the show and he'll blow you away. And Christy Altomare is delightful. Their work ethic, their talent, they're master craftsmen, these people. There's something between Christy, Mike, and Joey that just permeates the atmosphere.

And not just them. Kingsley Leggs – he's another guy, the way he sings resonates with me. I don't know how else to say it. He could make people feel it. He could groove and he could communicate, you know? And so does Jasmine Rogers. I don't know if you've ever seen this girl, but she's a rock star.

You've been singing some of these songs — "Runaround Sue," "The Wanderer," for 60 years now. What is it like to rediscover them in the context of this show, as opposed to doing them onstage in a concert?
I watch the show and the thought comes to me, "No wonder why people like my records." They're good! On a personal level, Christy Altomare does an a cappella thing on "Teenager in Love" in the play that totally broke my heart. I said to myself "I never knew what this song was about." I've been singing it for years and I never knew what it was about until I heard her sing it. What a crazy thing that was. I've been singing it so long, just jumping on the rhythm on it. I don't know. She reached my heart.

Does the show accurately depict the once in a lifetime musical era that you came of age in?
It does. It had to be expressed in some way. I grew up in one of the greatest musical generations ever, and I feel that way because rock and roll didn't exist yet at that time. We invented it. It was Chuck Berry. It was Jerry Lee Lewis. It was the Everly Brothers. It was Little Richard. We invited this teenage identity. When I grew up, there was Frank Sinatra, but there was no teenage music. I was right there at the right time, and that needed to be expressed, and this does it well.

Did you ever expect to be a musical-theater guy after all these years?
Never. It just wasn't on my radar. With rock and roll, you go out there and you play with people. It's like a gang. There's togetherness in a band, but, you know, when the Beatles made it, they all had separate lawyers. This is 60 people in a room rooting for each other and encouraging each other. Even with all of our human faults and flaws, to see that…You always hear this stuff and it sounds trite, but to be in the middle of it, it's actually touching. And I don't get touched that easily, man. It's a good feeling to be among these talented people. If I knew it was this much fun, I would have gotten involved in it a long time ago.

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